Emancipation Day in Canada: Past, Present and Future

August 1 is important in Canadian history because the Slavery Abolition Act affected the lives of those enslaved and the lives of their descendants.

newspaper notice of public auction boy and girl age 11

“Public Auction November 3, 1760. To be sold a boy and girl, about 11 years old.”

30 years later on September 7, 1790 a Halifax newspaper advertises:
“For sale: Some household furniture, a stout likely negro and sundry other articles.”

The first colony in the British Empire to have anti-slavery legislation was Upper Canada, now Ontario. John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (1791–1796), passed an Act Against Slavery in 1793, which ended the importation of slaves in Upper Canada and manumitted the future children of female slaves at age twenty-five. BUT, it did not free a single slave. It was superseded by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

Upper Canada/Ontario was not the first of the British and former British possessions to enact legislation against slavery. Vermont abolished slavery outright in 1777, a full 16 years before Upper Canada’s partial abolition. And Vermont was followed quickly by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and several other northern states, well ahead of Upper Canada’s 1793 law. In 1787, the United States Congress outlawed slavery in the territories that would become the Midwest states.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, the “Island of Ceylon” and “the Island of Saint Helena”; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843). Only slaves below the age of six were freed. Enslaved people older than six years of age were re-designated as “apprentices” and required to work, 40 hours per week without pay, as part of compensation payment to their former owners. Full emancipation was finally achieved at midnight on July 31, 1838.

Twenty million English pounds (£20,000,000) were made available by the British government to pay for damages suffered by owners of registered slaves, but none was sent to slaveholders in British North America. Those formerly enslaved did not receive any compensation either.
This legislation also made Canada free land for enslaved American Blacks. The image of Canada as a safe haven for enslaved African Americans was born, and thousands of fugitives and free Blacks would arrive on Canadian soil between 1834 and the early 1860s.

Bill 111, the Emancipation Day Act, received Royal Assent on December 10, 2008. But it would be another 12+ years, on March 24, 2021 for MPs in the House of Commons  to vote unanimously to designate Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day across Canada.

Emancipation Day is not just about honouring the past. It continues to have an effect on the lives of African Canadians today.
Emancipation Day is about learning Canada’s collective history — not rewriting that history but telling a more complete history that includes the history of slavery. Even after emancipation, African heritage and history continued to be erased by methods of segregation, murder and systemic marginalization. Canadian history is taught in schools from a Eurocentric perspective that omits or minimizes the human rights violation against African Canadians. Recognizing emancipation is a step forward in recognizing African Canadian history as part of Canada’s story and teaches the next generation about the shameful and forgotten parts of the past that must not be repeated.
Slavery and segregation created circumstances of marginalization, a cycle of unequal access, lost opportunities and systemic poverty. Even after slavery was abolished in Canada, African Canadians continue to be devalued and left to survive with subpar health care, education and lack of employment opportunities. Communities were legally segregated, creating significant barriers to success. Even though segregation is no longer legal, African Canadians continue to experience systemic anti-Black racism through social exile, through significant economic disparities and through active discrimination. This history gives context to the current circumstance of poverty and violence. Where this context is not provided, poverty and violence are dismissed as individual issues rather than being accurately understood as systemic issues.
A big part of recognizing Emancipation Day is talking about the many segments of Canada’s past that often do not make it into mainstream history-class curricula. 

newspaper notice of runaway slaves

“June 21, 1792. Run Away, Joseph Odel and Peter Lawrence (Negroes) from their Masters, and left Digby last evening, the first is about twenty-four years of age, five feet six inches high, had on a light brown coat, red waistcoat and thickset breeches but took other clothes with him. He is a likely young fellow with remarkable white teeth. The other is about five feet eight inches high, very Black, had on light colored clothes. Whoever will secure said Negroes so that their Masters may have them again, shall receive TEN DOLLARS reward, and all reasonable charges paid. Signed Daniel Odel and Phillip Earl”

Taking the time to learn about our robust history reveals stories of resilience, victories and communities coming together. Recognition leads to understanding and education, which can then lead to action.

For far too long, the stories of slaves and their descendants have been kept alive solely in Black communities. It is time to teach all our children this part of Canada’s history so that we can begin the reparations necessary to address modern-day anti-Black racism and the impact of that racism. A step on this journey toward reparation would be an official apology to the descendants of slaves, to bring this issue to the forefront of Canadian consciousness.
Organizations like the BC Black History Awareness Society offset the failure to preserve and teach Black history and the marginalization of African Canadians by ensuring that all generations of African Canadians can learn and explore their heritage in publicly accessible events. Emancipation Day is a time to remember our past and remember the people who fought for freedom. It’s a time to remember those who did not survive. It’s a time to remember our ancestors, upon whose shoulders we stand.
Emancipation Day is also about reflecting on our present, taking the time to examine the current circumstances and remembering why Black lives matter. When we talk about intergenerational trauma within African Canadian families, we are looking at generations of trauma stretching back to times of slavery, pre-1834. Tying our present to our past is a way of recognizing how slavery and segregation are actually the roots of anti-Black racism.
Emancipation Day is also about preparing for our future. It is in this preparation and fight for equality that we will prepare the younger generation for success. The United Nations Decade for People of African Descent calls for recognition, justice and development. Within the recommendations for recognition, the United Nations suggests that communities “. . . promote greater knowledge and recognition of and respect for the culture, history and heritage of people of African descent, including through research and education, and promote full and accurate inclusion of the history and contribution of people of African descent in educational curricula . . . .” It also recommends that schools “ensure that textbooks and other educational materials reflect historical facts accurately as they relate to past tragedies and atrocities, in particular slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, so as to avoid stereotypes and the distortion or falsification of these historic facts, which may lead to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, including the role of respective countries therein . . . .”

In August 2020, Steven Cook, Manager of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Site in Ontario interviewed Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, an independent senator, educator, researcher, community activist. She had for many years championed legislation to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day across all of Canada.
the country will know about it and understand its’ meaning. We tend not to tell the full story of Canada’s history of slavery – without fully telling that history is like an erasure of our past.” Watch the interview 

Compiled from various sources.